BURRILLVILLE – The Nasonville Fire District’s board of commissioners has been unable to reach a contract agreement with the union representing the department’s 13 employees, leading to talk that service in the village could be merged with the neighboring district of Oakland/Mapleville.
The department, which serves a village population of roughly 4,000 residents, is one of four independent fire districts in Burrillville. Paid staff is complemented by a group of roughly 26 volunteers under the leadership of Chief Joseph Bourquin.
The three-year union contract for members of the Nasonville Fire District is set to expire at the end of September and negotiations, which have taken place over the last several months, have reportedly not gone well. Joseph Andriole, president of the Rhode Island State Association of Firefighters, said that the commission that governs the district has been unable to reach an agreement with organized labor, and about a week ago, things took a turn for the worst.
“We were notified that the district was going to bring to a vote to the taxpayers as to whether or not they wanted to contract out the entire department to the neighboring district,” said Andriole.
According to Andriole, the lawyer representing the district commission, Timothy Cavazza, said the vote to subcontract the Nasonville Fire District would take place on Friday, Sept. 28.
According to district bylaws, the commission would first have to vote to move forward with the ballot question, an issue that could come forward at their monthly meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 11. Oakland/Mapleville voters would also have a say, and that board could potentially vote to move a ballot question forward at their next meeting on Wednesday, Sept. 12.
But Andriole believes the move would violate the state law that governs negotiations, known as the Firefighter’s Arbitration Act.
“We perceive that their actions probably would constitute an unfair labor practice charge,” Andriole said. “We’re continuing to follow the state law.”
The union side of the dispute has filed for interest arbitration, a process where a panel helps the parties to settle on a contract.
Cavazza did not immediately return NRI NOW’s call for comment.
In Oakland/Mapleville, a fire district that encompasses an area of approximately 13 square miles with a resident population of approximately 4,400, the issue of consolidation was discussed at meetings starting in February, and remained on agendas in months that followed. But talk was in reaction to Councilor David Place’s initiative to put a question regarding consolidation on Burrillville’s town-wide ballot.
In a note on the issue to the Town Council, Oakland Mapleville District Clerk Richard Lapierre wrote, “While we have no objection to discussing consolidation with any of the other fire districts, we continue to insist that these discussions be initiated by the districts themselves rather than from some type of mandate from a referendum or from the Town Council. We continue to believe that these types of issues are better addressed at the district level, and we take note of the problems that have surfaced when districts in Coventry and Cumberland were merged.”
The initiative for a town-wide vote was ultimately tabled by the Town Council, but at Oakland Mapleville’s August board meeting, a separate agenda item addressed, “Discussion on Nasonville Fire District issues.”
“Depending on the outcome of their meetings, they may ask us to cover their calls,” noted the August meeting minutes.
Nasonville Chief Bourquin said he was “blindsided,” by the agenda item.
“I guess people from the Nasonville board went and had a meeting with the the Oakland Mapleville board to discuss possibly taking over the services,” Bourquin said. “When I asked my board member, his claim is that they were simply seeking a backup plan or an ’emergency plan’ for coverage should something happen. My answer to that board member was that any emergency planning for coverage would be my job.”
Bourquin, who has been chief in Nasonville for the past two years, said he has also been left out of the process in union negotiations. As chief, he notes, he should have been the first line of command in creation of any backup plan, which should also have been discussed in an open meeting of the Nasonville district before the full board before Oakland/Mapleville was notified.
“I did explain that it should have been brought to my attention so I could notify several area fire chiefs that I could be calling for assistance,” said Bourquin. “It’s very unorthodox that they would talk to one specific fire department. They choose to handle it themselves and not involve me in it.”
Nasonville also submitted a letter to the council on the issue of consolidation that also expressed objection to placing the issue on November’s town-wide ballot.
“We feel that discussions need to be initiated by the district,” the letter noted in part.
The Nasonville Fire District is governed by a group of seven board members, two of whom are paid employees in the Oakland Mapleville district.
Those in favor of keeping all of Burrillville’s fire operations open note that a blaze doubles in size every 30 seconds, and that the town is comprised of some 60 square miles.
“We think it would be unwise of the district to do what they’re threatening to do,” said Andriolli. “I think response times would be hurt.”